History is usually written by the winners. But that wasn’t the case when The Birth of a Nation was released on February 8, 1915. In just over three hours, D.W. Griffith’s controversial epic film about the Civil War and Reconstruction depicted the Ku Klux Klan as valiant saviors of a post-war South ravaged by Northern carpetbaggers and immoral freed Black people. The film was an instant blockbuster. And with innovative cinematography and a Confederate-skewed point of view, The Birth of a Nation also helped rekindle the KKK.
Until the movie’s debut, the Ku Klux Klan founded in 1865 by Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, was a regional organization in the South that was all but obliterated due to government suppression. But The Birth of a Nation’s racially charged Jim Crow narrative, coupled with America’s heightened anti-immigrant climate, led the Klan to align itself with the movie’s success and use it as a recruiting tool.
“People were primed for the message,” says Paul McEwan, film studies professor at Muhlenberg College and author of The Birth of Nation (BFI Film Classics). “Hard to argue this was a distortion of history when the history books at that time said the same.”
Adapted from the book The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., who was a classmate and friend of President Woodrow Wilson, The Birth of a Nation portrayed Reconstruction as catastrophic. It showed Radical Republicans encouraging equality for Black people, who in the film are represented as uncouth, intellectually inferior and predators of white women. And this racist narrative was widely accepted as historical fact.
“Academic histories mostly centered around the Dunning School,” McEwan says of the historiographical school of thought conceived by scholar William Archibald Dunning. It concluded that Reconstruction was a terrible mistake, which helped validate the film’s message, McEwan added.
Shortly after the Los Angeles launch, Thomas Dixon Jr. convinced President Wilson to screen the movie inside the White House, arguably the first time that was ever done. President Wilson reportedly said of the film, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Although the quote’s authenticity has been disputed, there is no debate where Wilson stood on the issue of race. “He re-segregated the civil service,” says McEwan. “It’s not unreasonable to conclude that he thought the film was amazing.” And of course, a movie screened at the White House was going to be perceived as an endorsement of the film; one white supremacist in Georgia understood this implicitly.
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William Joseph Simmons is considered to be the founder of the 1915 modern Ku Klux Klan. While recovering from a car accident, the local preacher in Georgia followed the Birth of a Nation’s nationwide success. There were KKK-inspired aprons, costumes and regalia that glorified the defunct organization. Simmons seized on the film’s popularity to bolster the Klan’s appeal again.
It wasn’t just the fraught racial tensions that made the timing of a rebirth feasible. The way the film was made, with innovating editing techniques and close-up action shots, was captivating.
“People were taken to another planet,” says Dick Lehr, author of The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. “The galloping Klan riding to the rescue. The pure spectacle of it all,” says Lehr, romanticized the KKK. The film bolstered the idea that the Klan was there to save the South from savage Black men raping white women, a racist myth that would be propagated for years, Lehr adds.
As described in a journal article by historian Maxim Simcovitch, Simmons put a plan in motion once he learned the film would be released on December 6, 1915 in Atlanta. Just 10 days before the film premiered, Simmons gathered a group and climbed Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, to burn a large cross. He reportedly said, “There was good reason, as I have said, for making Thanksgiving Day (November 25, 1915) the occasion for burning the fiery cross. Something was going to happen in town (Atlanta) the next week (the premiere of The Birth of a Nation) that would give the new order a tremendous popular boost.”
As planned, word spread about the burning cross. Simmons also took out a newspaper ad about the KKK‘s revival that ran right alongside an announcement about The Birth of a Nation premiere.
On opening night, Simmons and fellow Klansmen dressed in white sheets and Confederate uniforms paraded down Peachtree Street with hooded horses, firing rifle salutes in front of the theater. The effect was powerful and screenings in more cities echoed the display, including movie ushers donning white sheets. Klansmen also handed out KKK literature before and after screenings.
The NAACP protested The Birth of a Nation but the film’s popularity was too strong. With Black troops from WWI returning from France and the migration of Black people to the North, there were new racial tensions in northern cities, like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia. “There was no will in the North to enforce equality,” McEwan says. “It half-heartedly condemned racism.”
As the film continued to be screened and re-screened well into the 1920s, Lehr says more Klan chapters formed and membership reportedly reached into the millions. New Klansmen were shown The Birth of Nation and the film continued to be a recruiting tool for decades to come.